Courtesy: FX

Television

'The Americans' Finale Leaves Us Shaken and Stirred

Upon first meeting the Jennings family when The Americans premiered in 2013, it was easy to like them immediately. Sure, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) were Russian spies stealing American secrets for the Soviet Union. And sure, they frequently left their children, Paige and Henry, alone at night to don wigs and track government officials through the streets of Washington, D.C. But there was something inherently relatable about the family and their comfortable life in the Northern Virginia suburbs. They were any bickering family, even if this particular family had been manufactured as a front for Russians to spy in the United States.

Over the course of six seasons, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields kept this family at the heart of The Americans. It was a spy show, one that tackled political and social issues, but the thread of the Jennings ran through the core of every episode. This is why last night’s series finale felt both surprising and inevitable. The producers have had the conclusion in mind since early on in the series, which obviously helped the fluidity of the narrative in reaching this point. Still, it was heartbreaking to realize that the ultimate cost of spying for Russia was the dissolution of the Jennings family unit. Philip and Elizabeth earned a bittersweet ending for themselves, finally returning to Russia, but Henry and Paige paid the price of their parents’ choices, with Henry abandoned at boarding school and Paige deciding not to follow her mother and father over the American border. Many viewers may have expected the show to culminate in a brutal death or explosive scene, but the truth is that this quieter ending, one in which two parents will never see their children again because of their chosen career, is far sadder and far more effective.

It was also a bittersweet ending for the Jennings' FBI agent neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich). He finally got his payoff, confirming that his longtime neighbors were the Russian agents he’d been searching for all along, but his worldview was shattered (and his wife may or may not a spy herself—we can only suppose by her lingering looks in the final scenes). In an interview before the season six premiere, Emmerich told Playboy that The Americans is, in essence, a show about relationships and identity, a fact that is important in considering its legacy and how fans will remember it.

“All of the spy craft and all the sexy espionage make it fun and captivating and enticing, but the meat of it has always been the humanity of it,” the actor told us. “How we hold ourselves in the world and how we relate to each other. Our true selves versus our presented selves. It’s not really about spies—it’s about people. That's the strength of the show, and what drew me to it in the first place, and what I feel has been carried on elegantly.”
That is what season six in particular has done so well. The secondary plot line—with Elizabeth posing as a care nurse for a dying artist—offered a new lens through which to view the character, who has often been emotionless and harsh, usually putting her duty before her relationships. In these scenes, Elizabeth was forced to examine the world emotionally and to see people as people rather than targets. The imposed art lessons, given by a woman dying of cancer, offered Elizabeth a glimpse of that aforementioned humanity, that there’s more to life than just following orders. Her reaction in the finale, when she sees that Paige has gotten off the train and decided to stay in America, felt revelatory, a small peek behind her emotionless façade. It turned out, in the end, that Elizabeth cared more about her family than she may have assumed, making her sacrifice even more heartbreaking.

In a time when there is a constant deluge of content, with far more TV shows than one could possibly watch, it’s nice to spotlight a show that so carefully considered humanity and all the shades of grey. The Americans has never been about Russia versus the U.S., or the KGB versus the FBI, and our loyalty as viewers has always simply been with the characters. We rooted for everyone because we liked everyone and sympathized with them. The final showdown between Philip and Stan was so affecting because we wanted both of them to prevail, and there was no conceivable way for that to happen. It’s odd to realize that for six seasons, we’ve been siding with the Russian spies, particularly in light of current events.
It’s odd to realize that for six seasons, we’ve been siding with the Russian spies, particularly in light of current events.
This unlikely connection between The Americans and the real-world news didn’t exist when the show first emerged. It was only once the election happened that a strange parallel became apparent. The series may have been set in the ‘80s, but its relevance has been striking, especially as it’s become clear that Russia remains involved in the international spy game. Weisberg and Fields were also careful to keep current events out of the writer’s room to ensure that the series didn’t comment on present-day issues, but it’s hard to deny the fact that The Americans has oddly mirrored our own reality.

The series hasn’t always earned the best ratings, even though TV critics and fans have always pushed hard for new viewership. However, the shelf life of The Americans feels indefinite, largely because family dynamics never really change. There’s also something relatable about a family, whether it’s in the ‘80s or today. We can all understand the tension between a mother and a daughter, or the semi-abandonment felt by the younger child who gets overlooked for an elder sibling. The Jennings happened to be an extraordinary family, but in many ways, they were also just another family living on a suburban street somewhere in America. If anything, the finale answered the age-old conundrum of how to best balance work and home life, reminding us that there is no duty so important that it’s worth sacrificing family—even if that duty is being dictated by the KGB.

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